Rightwing Film Geek

Nolan’s BATMAN

THE DARK KNIGHT (Christopher Nolan, USA, 2008, 9)

Before going into THE DARK KNIGHT for the first time, I texted Michael Gerardi and referred to the film we were both going in to see, Thursday-Midnight show on opening-weekend, as “Christopher Nolan Makes a Lot of Money.” I wasn’t terribly impressed with BATMAN BEGINS and think Nolan’s MEMENTO and THE PRESTIGE among the decade’s very best films. So I went into THE DARK KNIGHT knowing the buzz was high but seeing it as a money-spinning project that would allow one of the best writer-directors working in English the cred to make more of *his* films. And my high grade mystified Mike, prompting him to belatedly prompt me about it last night.

And my answer is that I was wrong in my expectations. THE DARK KNIGHT *is* a Christopher Nolan film down to the very bottom and thus probably my favorite comic-book movie ever. Nolan is a moralist, but one pitilessly without illusion. His three great movies are all, in different ways, critiques of truth and the relationship of truth and vocation. To speak somewhat vaguely about the earlier two films: MEMENTO is about a man who chooses a lie that gives his life meaning over a truth that doesn’t set him free; and THE PRESTIGE is about two men who take their relationship to truth to the graves — one man accepts a recurring nightly death in pursuit of scientific truth, another man accepts death rather than publicly admit the lie he has built his life around;

In THE DARK KNIGHT, Nolan makes it explicit, indeed impossible to miss via the last scene, both (1) that Batman accedes to a Socratic noble lie a la MEMENTO about Harvey Dent (and it’s not the only one in the movie — consider the burning of a letter, a public assassination, Batman turning himself in — and contrast it with an explicitly demanded lie: the “it’ll be all right, son” scene) and (2) that Batman’s vocation — like Leonard’s crime investigation, like Borden’s magic act, like Angier’s scientific investigation — will ultimately destroy him, or at a minimum cast him as the eternal despised outsider. He even has to give up his position as Bruce Wayne and destroy stately Wayne Manor.

Indeed, the best analogy I can think to the Batman character is from “The St. Petersburg Diaries,” a work by Count Joseph De Maistre — an anti-Revolution French philosopher hardly known (unjustly so) outside the circle of right-Catholic reaction. In that work, among the lather of ironies and paradoxes De Maistre has endless fun with, he describes the executioner as the man on whom society’s order relies but whom society despises. In this day and age, we’re so squeamish about the death penalty that we try to make as euphemize it as much as possible in our method and go to elaborate measures to remove the responsibility away from any given man — multiple switches on the drug machine, blanks in some firing squad guns, etc. As the man who gets his hands dirty, Batman has to be an outsider for the sake of the rest of our self-images.

October 29, 2008 Posted by | Christopher Nolan, Michael Gerardi | Leave a comment

After years of refusal

HUSBANDS AND WIVES (Woody Allen, USA, 1992, 8)

Written July 2001 at Super-Secret Movie Nerd Group at Andrew Johnston’s prompting, after seeing the film following a nine-year boycott because it seemed based on the Soon-Yi affair, which Mia Farrow discovered while the film was shooting.

I had some of the reaction I expected, but quite a lot that I didn’t. It’s easily one of Woody’s best films of the 90s. I found myself even hungrier for a good, “new” Woody Allen film than I thought I was.

There’s obviously many more real-life parallels in the setup than the way it plays out, but (Here stand I stand, I cannot do other) I still felt like I was watching something pornographic in the three or so significant “state of our marriage” scenes between Woody and Mia — particularly the first, the movie’s second dramatic scene, right after Sydney Pollack and July Davis announce their divorce. I felt really protective toward Mia (the person, not the character she was playing) when she asks “would ever leave me for another woman?” As I hypothesized back then, with different actors or acting in another director’s film, I wouldn’t have felt so dirty.

Everyone else was right that Davis and Pollack are nothing less than marvelous (which I suspected would be the case). Has Judy Davis ever given a bad performance? Aside: anti-TV snobs should see her work earlier this year in the Judy Garland biopic; she makes the movie. Is there anyone else who thinks Sydney Pollack as good an actor as a director? Lysette Anthony, who played Sam (Pollack’s vegan-aerobicist-astrologer girlfriend), had the funniest scene in the movie — at the intellectuals’ party. Even Benno Schmidt easily overcame my “shock of recognition.” The only bad performance is by Juliette Lewis … or rather she has one horrible scene where she was obviously “acting,” the scene in the cab where she starts to criticize the novel. There was something excruciatingly mannered about her facial expression in some of those closeups, as though she was very proud of getting right her lit-crit lines.

But the real surprise came for me in Woody’s character. Not only is this by far Allen’s best performance as a (non-clown) actor, but in terms of self-apologia, HUSBANDS AND WIVES is no DECONSTRUCTING HARRY. The Juliette Lewis affair never becomes a source of tension in the marriage as such (I don’t recall Mia ever finding out about it) nor does it end like the “dirty old man” fantasy I had expected it to. Indeed, Woody’s character is the one left alone at the end, although not as a specific George Amberson “comeuppance,” as more like odd chance. There’s a brilliant throwaway part from the reading of Allen’s novel about two men — a man with five children who envies the freedom of the bachelor down the hall, who in his turn envies the security of the married man. It’s kinda cliche (‘the grass is always greener …’), but I really found it affecting partly because it was so unexpected given how dislikable I have found Allen’s persona in recent years. Nor do I think I’ll ever forget Woody getting the film’s last line “are we done, now?” or the look on his face in that final shot and the way the camera freezes on it for like two seconds. This is a deeply unhappy man whose great cross to bear is the full knowledge of how deeply unhappy he is.

October 29, 2008 Posted by | Woody Allen | Leave a comment

Andrew Johnston, 1968-2008

My film-critic friends and I got some bad news Sunday overnight. Andrew Johnston died, at the age of 40. His death Sunday night was a real surprise and shock. He had been battling cancer for several years, but the last I heard from him on this subject was about a year ago, when he was brimming with optimism that he’d licked it, and the last time I saw him in person, whenever it was, he looked reasonably hail and had good weight on him.

Andrew was one of the circle of Internet pro-critic friends I have. He was most recently an editor at Time Out New York and had been previously been a critic for TONY, Us Weekly and other magazines, and served for a time as chairman of the New York Film Critics Circle. I won’t pretend to be closer to him than I was. Because he was based in New York, I only saw him in person the five or so years we were both at the Toronto Film Festival. But before we’d ever met in person, when I mentioned summer 2001 in our Super-Secret Discussion Board that I’d be coming to the next TIFF, he e-mailed me with the words “Thank God — that means there’ll be at least one [guy] I can drink with!” since most of the rest of our circle was one-or-none types.

The note kinda typified what defined Andrew — a combination of menschness and enthusiasm. And that was him both personally and in his writing. In fact, the thing I remember best about Andrew was the enthusiasm he projected as a writer. He had more of a fan’s sensibility and a populist taste than many of us. (The year he was chairman, LORD OF THE RINGS 3 won the New York Critics top honor — which helped it build the momentum that ended with a historic Oscar sweep.) Andrew was the kind of guy who loved gushing to you about what he loved, rather than ranting to you about what he didn’t. That sort of personality was a welcome and sometimes needed antidote to the worldwise sang-froid that some of us are prone to, myself definitely not excluded.

Andrew was one among several pro critics who accepted me (and several other non-pros; the group was about 50-50 pros/nonpros) into their circle and the Super-Secret Group based on my postings in the late-90s on Usenet. And the thing I prized most about that was that never was I talked down to or ever treated as an inferior, an amateur interloper, etc. — not by Andrew or any of the others. Without their everyday-implicit approval I certainly would never have started this site and/or would have packed it in several times.

If Andrew thought I wrote something brilliant or brilliantly (first thing to come to mind was a post about the ending of CASABLANCA), he’d say so. If he thought I wrote something retarded, he’d say so. He took me to task once for attacking ROAD TO PERDITION as telegraphing everything (“what’s wrong with being clear and accessible to ordinary viewers”), and on another occasion for refusing on principle to watch Woody Allen’s HUSBANDS AND WIVES over the Soon-Yi affair (“You’re really cheating yourself by not seeing HUSBANDS AND WIVES … If you’re such a fan of his, why on Earth would you deny yourself this film?”). I relented on the Allen film and I’ll post the resulting review of HUSBANDS AND WIVES immediately after completing this post. On another occasion, I mentioned loading my Sicilian confessor my DVD of Visconti’s LA TERRA TREMA, which he called ridiculous since Father didn’t even like BICYCLE THIEF. At my request, that priest said a Mass for Andrew and the repose of his soul in the last day or so.

In our limited e-mail and personal interaction, Andrew and I hit it off well too. Via e-mail, we bonded over the surprising commonalities and few differences about the pop-culture and music exposure of our very different boyhoods just two years apart. I promised him once, when he posted some advance info about TROY that struck me as bad news: “please be wrong; I’ll put a Ralph Nader logo on my site if you say you made this up.” At one TIFF, we discussed a favorite director of both of ours — Stanley Kubrick, most especially A CLOCKWORK ORANGE — for a whole meal by ourselves at one end of the table and ignoring everyone else. That first year, I saw FROM HELL with Andrew, Mike and Theo, and we’re milling about at the Varsity lobby afterwards. As an amateur Ripperologist, I’m ranting (imagine Wallace Shawn in THE PRINCESS BRIDE) about how the Hughes Brothers’ theory was implausible and in any event decisively refuted by workhouse records of Annie Crook and the child’s birth certificate, etc. Mike and Theo also are holding their metaphorical noses at the film too. Theo then looks at Andrew’s face and says “lemme guess … you kinda liked it.” At that, Andrew says something like “I have to like something about this” and then pulled up his sleeve to show a tattoo of the Freemasons or some Masonic symbol on his deltoid.

Those of us who could see Andrew’s work unencumbered by space, formatting and audience-targeting considerations knew how good a critic he was. I unfortunately didn’t read much of his work the last couple of years mostly because he began writing more about television, which I gave up a couple of years ago and so couldn’t even follow. Everyone I know says this was when he best found his public voice. According to this piece at The House Next Door, even on his deathbed, he was watching and writing about MAD MEN, for which he was beating the drum very early (as I say, Andrew was an enthusiast first and last). “Mad Men Mondays” was a regular feature there. I think I owe it to him to pick up and start watching MAD MEN from the start after the election to see what was Andrew’s final love.

But probably my favorite Andrew post on The Group, which I’ll take the liberty of pasting in after the jump, was over APOCALYPSE NOW REDUX, which Andrew and I were virtually alone in thinking was an improvement on the original (the vote was 5 better / 19 worse). I wrote the following then in lieu of defending the changes myself.

When I saw the film last week, I thought it was even better than before. … [But] I didn’t say anything because I found that almost everything I wanted to say had been said, quite worthily, by Mr. Andrew Johnston in post 10626. We should all bow down before his brilliance. Dude, you da explosion.

Yes, he was. RIP and thanksbud.

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October 29, 2008 Posted by | Andrew Johnston | 7 Comments